Parting glances: the Siglap flats

25 05 2020

A final look at the set of four Housing and Development Board (HDB) built blocks of flats that have long been a curious sight at the junction of Upper East Coast Road and Siglap Road. Each five-storeys tall, the blocks were completed in early 1964 to rehouse families  displaced by a fire that had destroyed wooden dwellings on the same site during Chinese New Year in February 1962. More than 450 people from 82 families were rendered homeless by the fire. The four blocks, which contained some 119 units and 10 shop units when built, will be demolished under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) and were vacated some time in 2015.


How the blocks looked originally


 





Discovering Old Changi Hospital (2019)

1 07 2019

Update : Registration has closed as of 7.06 pm 1 July 2019. As pre-registration is required, no walk-ins will be permitted. 

More on the series: Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets


The disused buildings of the former Changi Hospital have, since the hospital’s colsure in 1997, been the subject of persistent rumours that stem from a misunderstanding of the buildings’ wartime history.

The hospital, which began its life as RAF Hospital, Changi, was among the most highly regarded in the RAF medical service. It boasted of some of the best facilities, and the environment it provided was ideally suited to rest and recuperation. Occupying buildings of the Changi garrison that were perhaps the least troubled by the occurences in Changi from Feb 1942 and Aug 1945, it was only in 1947 that the hospital was set up. Two Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks buildings built in the 1930s were turned into the hospital to serve RAF Changi after the air station was established (in 1946). A third block, which became the main ward block, was added in the early 1960s.

Suported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), the visit provides an opportunity to learn more about the former hopsital and its misunderstood past. It will also offer participants a rare opportunity to take a guided walk through parts of the property.

When 
13 July 2019

How to register

Do note that spaces are limited. As this is a repeat visit, kindly register only if you have not previously participated.

Participants must be of ages 18 and above.

A unique registration is required for each participant – duplicate registrations in the same name will count as one.

Registration shall be made using the form at this link (closed as of 7.06 pm 1 July 2019).

A confirmation will be sent to the email address used in registration one week prior to the visit with admin instructions to all successful registrants. Please ensure that the address entered on the form is correct.






(Re)Discovering Old Changi Hospital

14 09 2018

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up

Look out for next visit in the series to the Garrison Churches of Tanglin on 3 Nov 2018.


Pre-registration is necessary – no walk-ins will be permitted. As a condition for the visit, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) requires a unique registration (with a unique name and particulars) for each participant, who should be of age 18 and above.


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” makes a return to Old Changi Hospital on 29 September 2018 (9.30 to 11 am). The visit, aimed at those who missed the one last year, will provide participants with a rare opportunity to take a peek inside the former hospital and also learn about its much misunderstood past (sorry to disappoint you, but contrary to popular belief. nothing really much happened here during the Japanese Occupation – the hospital, when the Changi Garrison was used as an extended POW camp was set up at Roberts Barracks).

The former hospital, well regarded by RAF personnel and their families, traces its history back to 1947 when the RAF set it up in the newly established Air Station, RAF Changi. Two blocks built in the 1930s for the Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks, were used. A new building was added in the 1960s. One of the things that the hospital was then well known for was its very busy maternity section.

The pull-out of the British forces in late 1971, saw it come under the command of the ANZUK Forces as the ANZUK Military Hospital. It briefly became the UK Military Hospital in 1975 with the withdrawal of the Australian ANZUK contingent. The Singapore Armed Forces then ran the hospital in 1975/76 before it was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It was operated as Changi Hospital from 1 July 1976 until it closed in January 1997.


Visit details
(All spaces have been taken up and registration is closed)


More on its history : A wander through old Changi Hospital

Photographs from last year’s visit: A visit to Old Changi Hospital


“Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” guided State Property visits are organised by Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road, with the support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA).

More on the series:






The machine gun pillbox café at Changi Beach

10 11 2017

How I miss my outings as a child to Changi Beach. High tides occurring on a Sunday morning often meant a trip to the beach for a dip. Trips to Changi Beach, which meant a long but scenic drive in days when the word “expressway” did not feature on a Singaporean driver’s vocabulary, were always looked to with much excitement and were not without preparation.

Changi Beach, 1965

A day at  Changi Beach, 1965.

Mum would often prepare a delicious tiffin. Mee goreng or chicken curry served with local versions of the French baguette were my favourites. Dad would ask to have his thermos filled with kopi-o from the nearby kopitiam. Straw hats and mats, tiny pails and spades for sand play, inflatable floats, my grandma, my sis and me could then be packed into the trusty Austin 1100 for the drive – part of which featured the seemingly never-ending and still very rural Tampines Road.

Picnics out of the Car Boot, Changi Beach, late 1960s.

Changi Beach had then a very different feel. It was uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar. Ketapang (sea-almond), acacia, sea apple, coconut, and casuarina trees lined the beach and its popular stretches were lined with sampans for hire, and within sight of that, inner truck tire tubes for use as floats and deck chairs were displayed – also for hire.

Under an acacia tree, Changi Beach, early 1970s.

Sampans for hire (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

One of the things also associated with the beach that I was recently reminded of from a posting of photographs by Mrs Lies Strijker-Klaij, were the beach-side cafes. Housed in wooden shacks – much like those now found in some beaches in the region – they served the delicious Malay fare and were popular with the beach crowd as were the mobile food vendors who made an appearance. The fish and chips van was a regular, as were several bell-ringing ice-cream vendors and the Indian men balancing delicious a tray of vadai or a rack of kacang putih.

The vadai vendor with a tray balanced on his head. The wooden base opened up as a folding support (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

A vadai vendor and a beach-side café similar to the ones I remember at Changi Beach in the background (photo courtesy of Lies Strijker-Klaij and posted On A Little Street in Singapore).

Thinking about all that also reminds me of the machine gun pillboxes that lined the beach in my earlier years. Built to fend off would be invaders, they decorated the southward facing coastline. Many were filled with rotting matter and stank to high-heaven. There was also a pillbox along the beach that was a café operated out of. I don’t quite remember it but I recall my parents making reference to it as “chipot”. I never quite figured its name out, that is until quite recently. My dad explained that it was a name parents used for the want of a better name,  derived from how the Chinese lady who ran the café would repeated an order for a pot of tea, “chi pot” – a combination of the colloquial Hokkien word for one and the English pot!

A Pillbox at Changi Beach.

A similar pillbox at Mata Ikan in the 1970s.





The real story behind Old Changi Hospital

11 09 2017

The real story behind Old Changi Hospital, isn’t about what the place seems to have got an unfortunate reputation more recently for.  The former hospital, which has its roots in the RAF Hospital set up after the war in 1947, is a place that many who were warded or who worked there remember with fondness.

The hospital, with a reputation of being one of the best military medical facilities in the Far East, is also well remembered for the wonderful views its wards provided of the sea and that it was felt aided in rest and recovery.

Members of the public got to learn about the background to the hospital and how some of the basis for the more recently circulated myths are quite clearly false during a visit to the site as part of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets series of State Property Visits organised with the support of the Singapore Land Authority. More on the visit and the series can also be found at the links below.

More on the visit:

More on Old Changi Hospital / Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets:

Also of interest:





Registration for Old Changi Hospital Visit (2nd Run)

26 08 2017

Update
26 August 2017 1.15 pm

Registration for the 2nd run of the event has been closed as of 1312 hours, 26 August 2017. All slots have been taken up.

Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to Old Admiralty House being scheduled for 16 September 2017 at 9 am to 11 am (rescheduled due to Presidential election on 23 September). More details will be out two weeks before the visit.


Due to popular demand, a second run of the Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visit to Old Changi Hospital will be held on 9 September 2017.

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up. An email will be sent to registered participants with admin instructions a week prior to the visit.





Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets: Visit to Old Changi Hospital

25 08 2017

Update
26 August 2017 8.20 am

A 2nd tour has been added at 1pm on 9 September 2017.

Details on registration will be posted at 1 pm today.


Update
25 August 2017 9.07 am

Registration for the event has been closed as of 0835 hours, 25 August 2017. All slots have been taken up. Do look out for the next visit in the series, which will be to Old Admiralty House being scheduled for 16 September 2017 at 9 am to 11 am (rescheduled due to Presidential election on 23 September). More details will be out two weeks before the visit.


The fourth in the series of State Property visits that is being supported by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) will present participants with a rare opportunity to visit the former Changi Hospital.

For this visit, participants will have to be 18 years old and above.

Registration is closed as all slots have been taken up. An email will be sent to registered participants with admin instructions a week prior to the visit.


Old Changi Hospital

The hospital traces its origins to the Royal Air Force(RAF) Hospital Changi. That was set up in 1947 to serve the then newly established RAF Station, Singapore’s third. The hospital operated out of two Barrack Hill buildings, one of which was actually designated for use as a medical centre in the context of the military camps of today. The buildings were built as part of the Changi garrison’s 1930s vintage Kitchener Barracks, which housed the Royal Engineers. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, it took quite an effort to move from one wing to the other.

Despite its less than ideal layout, the hospital gained a reputation of being one of the best medical facilities in the Far East. It was well liked by those who were warded there with its proximity to the sea. The hospital also played an important role during the Korean War. A ward was set up for use as a stopover for the “Flying Ambulance” service the RAF mounted. The service allowed wounded UN Command troops to be repatriated to their home countries via Singapore and London.

The hospital was also an important maternity hospital that served families with all arms of the military (not just the RAF) who were stationed in Singapore and counted more than 1000 new arrivals during its time as the RAF Hospital. An expansion exercise in 1962 gave the hospital a third block.

RAF Hospital Changi became the ANZUK Military Hospital following the 1971 pullout of British forces, then the UK Military Hospital, the SAF Hospital, and finally Changi Hospital. It closed in 1997 and the buildings have been left empty since. I will be sharing more on the hospital, its buildings and the history of the Changi garrison during the visit.






Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.





Ancient music in Jackie Chan’s ancient houses

20 10 2016

A most delightful gift to Singapore made by Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan is the set of four structures that now grace the campus of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) at Somapah. Dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, the structures were originally from Zhejiang province in China. A chance to have a look at them came with a Nanyin performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in the structures that I was invited to recently.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Ancient music in ancient structures. A performance by the Siong Leng Musical Association held in a main hall that was part of a house from Zhejiang.

Part of a collection of ten ancient structures purchased by martial arts star with the intention that they be dismantled and re-erected as a home for his parents, the structures were put in storage for much longer than was intended. Little was documented on the assembly of the structures, which proved a challenge when the university looked at reassembling them.

The pavilion.

The pavilion.

The structures feature some rather interesting and previously unseen features in Singapore in which many Chinese structures are of the Minnan style. An examples of this is the exquisitely carved oversized wooden corbels seen in one of the structures, a late Qing dynasty pavilion. The pavilion, interestingly, also features a mix of styles seen in the wooden balustrades with a Suzhou flavour.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

The Suzhou style is also seen in some of the features of the pavilion.

Close to the pavilion, another of the structures – an opera stage, has an interesting feature on its ceiling – a dome of sorts that acts to enhance the stage acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage's acoustics.

A feature on the ceiling of the opera stage that enhances the stage’s acoustics.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

Hokkien opera on an ancient opera stage.

A close-up.

A close-up.

There are also two structures, complementing parts of a Ming dynasty house and a Qing dynasty house, that have been put together in the setting of a lake. Featuring a mix of old and new in the glass panels that keep the air-conditioning in, the parts which have only a small difference in width, find harmony even if they were from different houses and from different times. The parts are a main hall and an inner hall where bedrooms would have been located. An interesting contrast between the two are the finished wooden columns seen in the main hall where guests would be entertained and the coarser looking (and less costly) unfinished columns in the inner more private area.

jeromelim-5751

In the inner hall.

jeromelim-5707

The two parts of two houses, complementing each other in the setting of a lake.

jeromelim-5805

The opera stage by night.

A carved corbel on the stage.

A carved corbel on the stage.

jeromelim-5775

 





Fishy business at Changi Creek

29 09 2016

One of few places in Singapore that has still a hint of the old world, even in its modernised form, is Changi Village. While it bears little resemblance now to the sleepy village that once provided a perfect setting of a lazy afternoon stroll, there still are spots in and around it that take you back to its magical days.

The wharf at Changi Creek where fish from fish farms off the northeastern shore are brought ashore.

The wharf at Changi Creek where fish from fish farms off the northeastern shore are brought ashore.

One part of the village that has been spared from being overly manicured and also from the madding nasi-lemak seeking crowds that descend on the village especially during the weekends crowds, is the area around the creek. Here, one finds a world with much soul in it, coloured by the gathering of slow boats used in the transport of people to and from Singapore’s last inhabited island.  This, plus the activities associated with the delivery each morning of live fish from fish farms off Singapore’s northeastern coast from boats to lorries bound for Singapore’s many seafood restaurants, provides the creek with a character that is lacking in much of the rest of the island.

An early morning scene by the wharf.

An early morning scene by the wharf.

It is for these sights that I would often find myself enjoying a stroll by the creek. Observing what goes on at delivery time at the wharf, which is marked by a gathering of styrofoam box topped small lorries wharf side and sees the hoisting by hand of live seafood in nets from the boats, brings as much joy to me as taking in what went on along a once even more colourful Singapore River that I enjoyed as a child.

The colours that the gathering of slow boats to Pulau Ubin bring to the area, as seen from the area where the fish farmers' wharf is.

The colours that the gathering of slow boats to Pulau Ubin bring to the area, as seen from the area where the fish farmers’ wharf is.

The same area seen in 1966 (David Ayres on Flickr).

Sadly, time, it seems, is being called on the wharf and the joy it brings people like me. An article in yesterday’s Straits Times speaks of the prospect of its closure in an effort to curb smuggling. A recent case of cigarette smuggling had apparently been traced to the wharf and in a move typical of the agencies these days, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) is looking to have it shut over concerns “national security and safety” and are said to be in discussions with fish farmers on this. The fish farmers, who would be most affected, and would have to offload their time sensitive cargo further away at Lorong Halus or Senoko.

Small lorries gather in the mornings in anticipation of live seafood deliveries brought in from the fish farms.

Small lorries topped with styrofoam boxes gather in the mornings in anticipation of live seafood deliveries brought in from the fish farms.

The wharf - as seen from the ferry terminal.

The wharf – as seen from the ferry terminal.

Live fish are transferred to nets ...

Live fish are transferred to nets …

... which are then 'hoisted' up by hand ...

… which are then ‘hoisted’ up by hand …

... and loaded to lorries bound for seafood restaurants ...

… and loaded to lorries bound for seafood restaurants …

A styrofoam box topped delivery truck.

A styrofoam box topped delivery truck at the wharf.

 

 





A wander through old Changi Hospital

17 10 2015

Changi is an area of Singapore still riddled with many reminders of its past. The site of an artillery battery and an army garrison before the war, Changi was also where tens of thousands of prisoners-of-war were held during the dark days of occupation. The end of the war brought the Royal Air Force (RAF) to Changi with the establishment of the RAF Changi. Changi then served as the Headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) and its predecessor until the pull-out of British forces in 1971.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

The cluster of buildings reminding us of the former RAF Hospital Changi.

A corridor into the past - a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

A corridor into the past – a corridor along Block 161 as seen from Block 37.

Several reminders of these episodes in Changi’s history can still be seen today. Buildings from the various barracks from the 1930s and the remnants of the Johore Battery tell us of its garrison days. The air base is still around and although this is hidden from the public eye, a part of the former RAF Changi isn’t, including a cluster of buildings which served as the RAF Hospital Changi. With the permission of the Singapore Land Authority, I managed to wander through the old corridors of the old hospital, which despite what has, in more recent times, been said about it, isn’t what it is made out to be.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The casualty entrance and the operating theatre at Block 37 on top of the hill at the end of Hendon Road.

The operating theatre area.

The operating theatre area.

Perched on the northern slope of the former FEAF Hill overlooking the eastern Johor Strait and surrounded by a sea of greenery, the site of the hospital does seem as ideal as any as a one given to the care and recovery of the infirmed. Standing somewhat forlornly since they were vacated in 1997, the three buildings of the former hospital, now painted by many in a somewhat negative light, a sad reminder of the hospital that was very well thought of by many of its would be patients.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

The greenery that surrounds the former hospital site.

A view towards the Johor Strait from the roof of Block 161.

A view towards the Johor Strait, Pasir Ris and Punggol from the roof of Block 161.

The hospital’s origins lie with the establishment of the RAF’s Changi Station, or RAF Changi. The construction of an airfield by the Japanese in 1943 in the former army cantonment with the help of labour provided by prisoners-of-war (POW) had unlocked the potential of an area initially deemed unsuitable for an air base. The returning British wasted no time and with help from Japanese POWs built on the initial effort and had Singapore’s third principal RAF station set-up around it in 1946.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943.

RAF Hospital Changi during its time had a reputation of being modern and well equipped. The large maternity ward it boasted of was an indication of the presence of many young military families stationed in Singapore, not just with the RAF, but also in the other armed services. By the time the RAF vacated Changi and the hospital in 1971, the ward was responsible for more than a thousand new arrivals.

What would have been a women's ward in Block 161.

What would have been a women’s ward in Block 161.

Another view of the ward.

Another view of the ward.

The hospital’s own arrival came with its setting up in two former barrack buildings. The buildings on Barrack Hill (later FEAF Hill), Blocks 24 and 37, had originally been a part of the pre-war Kitchener Barracks (Block 37 may originally have been a medical facility serving Kitchener Barracks).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickr).

RAF Changi 1950. The relative positions of the original Blks 24 and 37 of RAF Hospital Changi and the Chalet Club can be seen (lkinlin18 on Flickrlicense).

Blocks 161 and 24.

Blocks 161 and 24.

The third building we see today, Block 161, was added in 1962. It was constructed to allow the expansion of the hospital after an attempt to consruct a new hospital at Selarang ran into difficulty and was abanadoned. The new building also provided a link over the steep incline that separated the hospital’s original blocks.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A view from Block 24 towards Block 161.

A passageway along Block 24.

A passageway on the top level of Block 24.

Named after Lord Kitchener, an officer in with the Royal Engineers who perished in service during World War I, Kitchener Barracks was home to the Royal Engineers and was one of four barracks that made up the army garrison. The hospital’s original buildings, the three storey Block 24 in particular, bear resemblance to many other barrack blocks that were built in the same era found across Singapore.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

Block 24, which resembles many of the British built barracks blocks from the same era.

The are suggestions that the hospital may have been established before the war, in 1935, around the time the barrack buildings were constructed. This however does not seem to have been likely. The evidence points to RAF Hospital Changi’s being established around 1947 based on records and also mentions of the hospital in newpaper articles.

Another ward in Block 161.

Another ward in Block 161.

Sanitary facilities.

Sanitary facilities.

No mention is also made of the hospital in late 1930s articles reporting to the intention to set up and the opening of the British Military Hospital at Alexandra. These point only to a Military Hospital at Tanglin as having been the only functioning hospital within the British military establishment in Singapore. The first reference to an RAF Hospital was in 1946 when that was set up temporarily in part of the mental hospital at Seletar (what became Woodbridge Hospital).

The bathroom inside the women's ward.

The bathroom inside the women’s ward.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

A corridor in Block 161 leading to Block 37.

One of the notable contributions of the hospital was the role it played in responding to medical emergencies hundred of miles offshore. The participation of the hospital extended to the deployment of “flying” surgeons and other medical personnel, one of whom was S/Ldr Agnes Bartels – who had the distinction of being the RAF’s only woman surgeon stationed in the Far East.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

An air-conditioning cooling unit outside Block 161.

On the ground level of Block 24.

On the ground level of Block 24.

The hospital would also called into service during the Korean War. A “Flying Ambulance” service, which was organised by the RAF to repatriate wounded UN Command troops from Japan via the UK to their home countries, used Singapore as a stopover. A ward specially set up at RAF Hospital Changi, allowed the wounded to be cared for whilst in transit. During the period, the hospital saw troops from several countries, which included the likes of Turkey and France.

Rooms in Block 24.

What seems to be a kitchen in Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The entrance area at Block 24.

The end for RAF Hospital Changi came in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out, at which point it was one of the three military run hospitals on the island. While the other two, the British Military Hospital (now Alexandra Hospital) and the Naval Base Hospital, were handed over to Singapore, Changi was retained for use as a military hospital to serve the smaller force being deployed under the ANZUK arrangement. On 1 October 1971, the then 150 bed hospital became the ANZUK Military Hospital.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A corridor on the second level of Block 24.

A view towards Block 24.

A view from Block 161 towards Block 24.

The withdrawal of Australia from the ANZUK arrangement (which saw a pullout in 1975), placed the hospital once again under the command of the UK military. It was then renamed the UK Military Hospital for a short while before it was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 1 December 1975 when it became the SAF Hospital.

A WC in Block 24.

A WC in Block 24.

The roof structure of Block 161.

The roof structure of Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Another corridor in Block 161.

Intended to serve SAF personnel and their families, the hospital was also to open its doors to the public. This was in early 1976, prior to it being transferred to the Ministry of Health who merged it with the nearby 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital and it became Changi Hospital on 1 July 1976.

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi's Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

Changi Chalet Hospital at Turnhouse Road seen in the mid 1970s (since demolished). The field in the foreground is the former RAF Changi’s Padang Sports Field and is where the former SIA Group Sports Club was built in the 1980s (photograph: Edmund Arozoo on On a Little Street in Singapore).

The decision to set up the 36 bed Changi Chalet Hospital, which was opened in the converted former Chalet Club (between Turnhouse Road and Netheravon Road) in August 1974, only for it to be absorbed into Changi Hospital less than two years later seems rather strange. Opened with the intention to serve “residents in the area”, rumour has it that the well equipped hospital, was set up to serve a certain group of holiday makers in what had been a well protected area.

A view from the old Sergeants Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

A view from the old Sergeants’ Mess towards the area where Changi Chalet Club was.

The death knell for Changi Hospital was sounded when it was announced in 1988 that a new site was being sought for a new Changi Hospital, which was “poorly located and not designed orginally to operate as a high activity acute hospital”. That was eventually found in Simei and the new Changi Hospital, which merged the operations of the old Changi Hospital, which closed in January 1997, with that of the former Toa Payoh Hospital, was opened in February 1997.

More views of Block 24.

More views of Block 24.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

The connection between Block 24 and Block 161.

A corridor at Block 37.

A corridor at Block 37.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37 as seen from Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The eventual fate of the buildings is not known. A tender exercise conducted in 2006 saw the award of site for interime use on a lease period of three years (extendable to an additional three plus three years) to Premium Pacific Pte Ltd. The intention to convert it into a Spa & Resort Development by 2008 however did not materialise and the property was returned in early 2010. Further attempts to find interim uses for the site have proved unsuccessful and the buildings have, since the hospital’s move, been sadly been left unused.

An artist’s impression of the proposed spa resort (it would be Block 37 depicted).

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

A room in Block 37.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37 towards Block 161.

Block 37.

Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.

The staircase down from the second level of Block 37.





The monster guns of the east

10 07 2015

Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Changi is a reminder of one of three monster guns of the east installed as part of the coastal defences to protect the island’s naval base from an attack by sea. The reminder, the No. 1 gun emplacement of the Johore Battery and its underground network of support structures, topped by a replica of the 15 inch gun that once stood proudly over it, is in an area today dominated by the high fences of the area’s prison complexes that make it seem an unlikely site for a coastal defence gun.

A photograph of one of the monster guns from the Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758) (Captioned as: A 15-inch coast defence gun at Singapore, November 1941).

A photograph of one of the monster guns seen in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 758)].

The terrain and its surroundings would of course have been very different in the days when the guns were installed. The considerations for locating them in the area go back to the 1920s, when the British were in the midst of planning on turning Changi into a military base. How it came to be chosen is already well documented by Peter Stubbs on his Fort Siloso website (see: Johore 15-inch Battery) in which there is a wealth of information also on the battery and other coastal defence sites across Singapore.

The replica gun at the site today.

The replica gun at the site today.

Named in honour of the then Sultan of Johor who had donated a substantial sum of money (in the order of £500,000) – much of which was used to set up the battery, the Johore Battery was one of several batteries of the Changi Fire Command, established to protect the entrance to the Tebrau Strait and the Naval Base. These also included 6 and 9,2 inch guns that were set up around the eastern tip of Singapore in an area that extended to Pulau Tekong and Pengerang in southeastern Johor. The 15-inch guns, installed in 1938, had a range of 21 miles.

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired in November 1941 [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Gun No. 2 of the Johore Battery being fired [Imperial War Museums collection ©IWM (K 755)].

Besides the Changi Fire Command, the coastal defences also included a Faber Fire Command to protect the port and the city of Singapore and a total of 29 large gun batteries were distributed between the two commands. The Faber Fire Command also included a Buona Vista Battery with two 15-inch guns.

The labyrinth above ground.

The labyrinth above ground.

Much has been discussed on the effectiveness of the guns in the days that led up to the Fall of Singapore. It could be suggested that the coastal defences did served their intended purpose in deterring an attack by the sea. What is quite certain however, was that although the flat trajectory of the guns and their ammunition made them unsuitable for use over land, two working guns of the Johore Battery were trained to the north and west and fired a total of Johore Battery (Infopedia) in the defence of the island. An account of one of the gun’s use is found in a paper “The Story of the end of Johore Battery during the Battle for Singapore” based on interviews with Malcolm Nash, the son of Gunner William Nash:

Once the Japanese had commenced their attack my father stated that his gun was turned around so that it could fire to the north. I believe that he said that turning it round took 12 hours. My father was the gunner responsible for firing the gun and thought the firing to have been merely a morale booster to frontline troops, as the shells available had been designed to pierce ships’ armour. During his time at Changi Prison he said that fellow soldiers had commented that the shells had sounded like a train going overhead when they were fired.

After eighty shells had been fired it was noticed that the rifling had started to protrude from the barrel and a member of the Royal Engineers was consulted. His view was that the gun was no longer fit for action and if fired again would not have his named attached to it. The gun was fired once more which caused its destruction, and the oil tanks around my father to explode and bathe him in oil.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

An 800 kg shell on display at the Johore Battery site.

The same paper describes an account of a Japanese Colonel, who recounts the guns’ armour piercing shells producing craters 15-16 metres in diameter and 5-6 metres deep and that the guns most intense phase came during 10-12 February 1942 when they were used to shell the centre and west of the Singapore. The guns were said to have been destroyed on the night of 12 February 1942. Following the end of the war, the remains of the 300 ton guns (the barrel alone was thought to have weighed 100 tons) were sold for scrap.

A soldier loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Loading a shell into the lift below the 15-inch gun [Australian War Memorial, copyright expired].

Besides the emplacements, a labyrinth of underground structures – a trace of which can now be seen above ground, were also built in an around the guns, in part to allow ammunition to be fed to the guns – the shells were loaded to the guns using a hydraulic lift. It was these tunnels and the emplacement of the No. 1 gun of the Johore Battery that was rediscovered in April 1991 in an area that became the Prisons’ Abington Centre and was then turned into the Johore Battery historic site and unveiled on 15 Fenruary 2002.  The underground structures are currently unsafe and access to them is not possible.





The long road to Somapah

26 06 2015

Excerpts of an interview with Mr Lim Jiak Kin:

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, I had a relative who lived in Mata Ikan. This was close to Somapah Village where my mother’s best friend lived. Her second son was my second brother’s god-brother.

The approach to Somapah and Mata Ikan was via Somapah Road, lined on the left and right with rows of shophouses. I remember a tailor, as well as a corner shop where my mother’s best friend ran a permanent wave salon. The salon was air-conditioned – a big deal in those days and it was where we always stopped on the way to Mata Ikan.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

I also remember that there were shophouses opposite the permanent wave shop, in front of which were some very good food stalls. One hawker sold fish porridge and another sold fried oysters. The stalls were relocated to Changi Village when Somapah was resettled. Right next to the permanent wave salon was an open-air cinema.

Somapah Road, at its junction with Jalan Somapah Timor (National Archives online catalogue).

By the side of the cinema there was a little slope where a number of stalls had been set up. This was where the morning market was held and where freshly cooked food and fish were sold. The fish would probably have been brought in from the sea at Mata Ikan, one or two kilometres away. Driving past the market, you would come to a child and maternal clinic. Farther in there were holiday bungalows, corporate as well as private ones.

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A playground at the Government holiday bungalows at Mata Ikan.

After stopping by the salon, we would head to the end of Somapah Road. That was where we would find the last house by the sea, a house of wood and attap typical of a Malaysian beach hut, standing under a coconut tree.

That was our main destination, a provision shop run by a good friend of my father’s. He was a relative of sorts, having originated from the same ancestral village in Hainan as my father. This man and his Teochew wife lived at the back of the house and kept chickens, reserving the best of them and also their eggs for my father for the Chinese New Year.

Across the path from the provision shop was a small shed. That was where my father’s friend turned crushed cockle shells into a ‘dough-like’ kapor to be sold as whitewash. Packed into wooden crates measuring one foot by one foot and two to three feet high, the kapor would be put on sale in paint shops. Competition from low-end, but superior-quality paints introduced by established paint-makers, had seen the trade gradually dying out.

I remember that the population of the Somapah area was mainly Chinese. Among the various dialect groups was a large Hainanese community and I can recall the Hainanese-run Kwang Boo Kok Suat Thuan. The head of the association was one of the founders of the Long Beach Seafood Restaurant that used to operate in the now long-gone Bedok Rest House.

Kwang Boo Kok Suat Tuan on the Changi 10 Mile Facebook Page.

I have many fond memories of my trips to Somapah and Mata Ikan. It was an outing that to a young boy, seemed almost like an overseas trip. Not many people had the opportunity to travel to the beach by car in those days. We would head there in an Austin A40 with the registration plate SC 644 that my mother would drive. There would be five of us; my parents, my two brothers and me, and we would take the drive on Sundays when my father was free.

Somapah Village was one of the main settlements in the area and served as the gateway to some of the villages that lay along the old coastline.

Somapah Village, in the National Archives online catalogue.

The drive was a long but scenic one. It seemed a long journey even in later years when made on board a lorry that left from the Capitol Cinema, near where the Bata shop was. Sitting on a plank in the back of the lorry about an hour into the journey, I would always look out for the “阿弥陀佛” (a mi tuo fo) temple opposite the Bedok Army Camp, as a sign that we were nearing our destination, the site of the picnic we were attending.

As a city dweller living in a two-storey shophouse with only the very dangerous Odeon car park to run about in, I felt like a caged dog being let loose when we went to the beach. It always meant getting my feet wet, picking up shells and sitting under coconut trees – a real treat that to this day I can still picture in my dreams.


More memories of Somapah Village and Mata Ikan

The site of Somapah Village is now occupied by the campus of the recently erected Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). The heart of the village stood at the meeting of Somapah Road, which has since been realigned, and Upper Changi Road.  Mata Ikan, was a holiday destination for many in days when it was the fashion to take vacations by the sea. Its site would be close to where Changi South Ave 3 is today.

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline ...

Approximate locations of some of the missing villages of the Changi / Somapah area.






The sports complex at Turnhouse Road

24 06 2015

Permission was obtained from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) for this visit. 


Lying silently and somewhat forgotten is a set of structures that is seemingly out of place in an area dominated by buildings of the former Royal Air Force Changi station (RAF Changi). An award winning sports complex that was completed in October 1982, the set of structures was the Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group Sports Club and had been built on the site of a previous sports facility, the former RAF Changi’s Airmen’s Swimming Pool. The S$11 million modern looking complex at 24 Turnhouse Road, one of the early post RAF Changi era interventions in the previously restricted section of Changi Point, was built to replace to the club’s facilities at the former international airport at Paya Lebar.

The former SIA Groups Sports and Recreation Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The former SIA Groups Sports Club complex at 24 Turnhouse Road.

The approach to the former club.

The approach to the former club along Turnhouse Road.

Windows into a more recent past.

Windows into a more recent past.

Erected at a time when several larger organisations were also investing in similar leisure facilities, the 2.68 ha. complex was thought of as second only to Shell’s impressive facilities at Pulau Bukom and Paya Lebar and catered for a variety of popular sports. It boasted of a seven lane Olympic size swimming pool, a children’s pool, basketball and netball courts, playing fields, three tennis courts, four squash courts, and a multi-purpose hall with three badminton courts.

The entrance to the club.

The entrance to the club.

The main staircase.

The main staircase.

The multi-purpose hall.

The multi-purpose hall.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

And the seven-lane Olympic size swimming pool.

The row of squash courts.

The row of squash courts.

The club’s architectural design, for which it won an award, has been described in an article on page 6 of the 18 June 1981 edition of the Straits Times:

The architecture of the complex is imaginative in concept and bold in design, featuring a four level chalet style building with sloping roofs, wide eaves and cantilevered balconies … An important aspect of the design is the viewing terrace, which links all sports and recreational areas. A roof deck on the topmost level of one wing offers superb views of the general surroundings, while a viewing balcony overlooks the multi-purpose hall and four squash courts.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

A view from the sea towards the area where the former club is. The structures of its buildings stand out in the distance.

The viewing balcony.

The viewing balcony.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

The upper floor corridor overlooking the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

What would have been a snack kiosk next to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

A view out to the swimming pool.

Pipework in the club's boiler room.

Pipework in the club’s boiler room.

Besides catering for sports, the club also provided for indoor activities, other hobbies and dining. Housed within its buildings were food and beverage outlets, a gym, a reading room, a conference room, a lounge, a jackpot machine room, an electronic games arcade, as well as rooms for billiards, darts and television. An innovation of the day that the club put to use was a solar powered water heating system.

What must have been a function or conference room.

What must have been a function or conference room.

A restaurant space.

A restaurant space.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

A view across the pool to the viewing balconies.

Despite the club’s enviable facilities, membership fell in its first years of operations at its new premises from a high of 5253 members in 1981 to a low of 1200, based on a 1983 report by in Suara Satu, the newsletter of Singapore Air Transport-Workers’s Union (SATU). Increased membership fees, distance and a lack of transportation to the club had been cited as a contributing factor. This saw the club open its doors to Division 1 civil servants, as well as staff of client airlines of its subsidiary Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS). There was also talk then of the club finding new premises or being opened to the public coming to the surface.

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The club did eventually move out – to its current facilities off Upper Changi Road East in 2006, leaving the clubhouse at Turnhouse Road abandoned. Today it remains unused – except for the occasional event being held there. The future of the club’s former buildings is uncertain, although an adaptive reuse may be found for the site in the interim during which time the structures will stand perhaps as a lesser known and temporary reminder of a period of Changi Point’s development that was influenced by the arrival of the new airport at Changi.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A terrace with a view to the sea.

A view across to 23B Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

A view across to 23 Turnhouse Road, now a seafood restaurant.

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Windows into Singapore: The grass is greener on the other side

11 02 2014

A view over the fence from former barrack buildings belonging to the British forces in Singapore to the greens of Changi Golf Club, which has a history dating back to 1949 when it opened by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as the RAF Changi Golf Club. The area in which it is in is one that is very much connected with the British Military. Barracks were set up to house army units from the late 1920s into the 1930s and were turned over to the Royal RAF following the war – the British had only realised the potential of operating an air base at Changi only after inheriting a Japanese built airfield (constructed with POW labour during the occupation). The cost of building the course, some £1,500, came from grant from the Commander-in-Cheif’s fund. To open the 9-hole course on 2 March 1949, a round of golf was played by the club’s Patron, Air Marshal Hugh, and its President, Vice Air-Marshal A. C. Sanderson.  The officers were also the Commander-in-Chief (Air Command) Far-East and the Air Officer Commanding, Malaya, respectively.

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The golf club is one of several in Singapore with leases set to expire within the next ten years and facing the possibility of not having their leases extended. This was made public as part of the Land Use Plan released to support the rather unpopular Population White Paper. Planners are said to be in the process of identifying land currently occupied by golf clubs for re-use in anticipation of the increases seen in the island’s future population.

Map of the Changi area in 1942, showing the location of British army barracks before the airfield was constructed.

Map of the Changi area in 1942, showing the location of British army barracks before the airfield was constructed.

Media reports early last year mention a total of 18 golf clubs in Singapore. These are said to take up more than 1,500 ha. of land or just a little over 2 per cent of Singapore’s total land area, making the nation as being one, based on a report in The New Paper in a 3 Feb 2013, with one of highest concentration of golf courses in Asia. There are many who do wish to see a reduction in the availability of land for such exclusive forms of use in an overcrowded Singapore and it is good to see that is some consideration that is being given to this.





A sneak peek at the Singapore Airshow 2014

9 02 2014

The much anticipated Singapore Airshow 2014 (SA14) opens this week at the Changi Exhibition Centre with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) celebrating a significant milestone, its 45th Anniversary. Marking this milestone, visitors to the airshow will be treated to an event, the RSAF45@SA, which will see an RSAF Pavilion in which the RSAF will showcase its transformation into the 3rd generation force it is today. Members of the public can also look forward not just to the ever popular aerial acrobatic displays from the RSAF Black Knights and aircraft from several other international air forces, but also to the chance to win rides during the public days on either a C-130 transport aircraft or a Chinook helicopter that offers passengers the treat of spectacular views over Singapore. A sneak peek at what’s in store at RSAF45@SA follows. More information and to sign up for the chance to win the rides on RSAF’s aircraft, do visit the RSAF’s Facebook Page (registration for the ballot should be submitted by today 9 Feb 2014).


A sneak peek at the Singapore Airshow 2014 and RSAF45@SA

Acrobatic Aerial Displays

RSAF Black Knights

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RAAF F-18 and ROKAF Black Eagles

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Rides on RSAF Aircraft

Ride with a view.

Ride with a view – a photo taken during a preview of the Chinook  ride.

Stand a chance to win a ride on a Chinook (seen here) or a C-130 Transport Aircraft.

Stand a chance to win a ride on a Chinook (seen here) or a C-130 Transport Aircraft.

An iPhone pano taken inside the Chinook during a preview.

An iPhone pano taken inside the Chinook during a preview.

Another view inside the Chinook during a preview of the ride.

Another view inside the Chinook during a preview of the ride.


RSAF Pavilion

The Air Force Recruitment Centre at RSAF45@SA will showcase the various career schemes and vocations through its “One Force” campaign which includes the interactive “One Force” smartphone application. Visitors can download the One Force app (Google Play – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.swagsoft.rsaf&hl=en / iTunes* – https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/one-force/id798763850?mt=8) which provides an interactive experience by scanning through placement of  your phone in front of a commercial being screened. Instructions on how to use the One Force app can be found at http://goo.gl/ztmrlh.

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Static Display

Key highlights of the static display include the F-15SG, G550-AEW, SPYDER Air Defence System as well as the Heron 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Hermes 450 UAV. Other aircraft types on display include the F-16D+ and the F-5S/T fighter aircraft, C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, AH-64D Apache attack helicopter; CH-47D Chinook and Super Puma helicopters. Other ground-based air defence systems on display include the Mechanised IGLA, I-Hawk, RBS-70 and Mistral.

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A Changi well hidden from sight

18 10 2013

Looking across a sun baked tarmac during a rare opportunity I had to pay a visit to Selarang Camp, it was quite difficult to imagine the square decorated by the shadows of rain trees along its its periphery, cast in the dark shadows of the war some 71 years ago.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

The sun-baked Selarang Camp Parade Square decorated not by the shadows of yesterday, but by those of today.

Surrounded not by rain trees, by the buildings of Selarang Barracks, the shadows of yesterday were ones cast by the events of the early days of early September 1942, events for which the barracks completed some four years before to house a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, would long be remembered for.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

A model of the barrack buildings around the square as seen on a sand model in the Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Little is left physically from the days of darkness in today’s Selarang Camp. One of the oldest camps still in use, it is now occupied by HQ 9th Division of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). There is little resemblance the tarmac and its surroundings bear to the infamous barrack square now half the size of the original where scenes, possibly descending on chaos from the thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) – estimates put it at some 13,350 British and 2,050 Australian troops, a total of 15,400 (some estimates had its as high as 17,000) who were made to crowd into a square which measured some 800 by 400 feet (244 x 122 metres), and the seven buildings around it – each with an floor space of 150 by 60 feet (46 x 18 metres) – a density of 1 man for every 2.3 square metres not counting the kitchen tents which had to also be moved into the square and makeshift latrines which had to also be dug into the square!

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The original square seen in a 1967 photograph.

The event, referred to as the Selarang Barracks Incident, is one which is well documented. What had triggered it was an escape attempt by four POWs, two Australian: Cpl Rodney Breavington and Pte Victor Gale, and two British: Pte Harold Waters, and Pte Eric Fletcher. To prevent similar attempts in the future, the Japanese captors, under the command of the newly arrived Major General Fukuei Shimpei (under whose charge the internment and POW camps in Malaya had been placed under), tried to persuade the men in captivity to sign a non-escape statement.

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

The barrack square during the incident (photograph taken off an information board at the parade square).

This was on 30 August 1942. The statement: “I, the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under any circumstances, attempt escape” – was in contravention to the Geneva Convention (of which Japan was not a signatory of) and the POWs were unanimous in refusing to sign it. This drew a response from the Japanese – they threatened all who refused to sign this undertaking on 1 September with “measures of severity”.

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The Non-Escape Statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

It was just after midnight on 2 September, that orders were given for all British and Australian POWs (except for the infirmed), who were being held in what had been an expanded Changi Gaol (which extended to Selarang and Roberts Barracks which was used as a hospital), to be moved to the already occupied Selarang barrack buildings which had been built to accommodate 800 men.

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

From Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957).

There was little the POWs could do but to make use of whatever space that was made available, spilling into the non-sheltered square around which the barrack buildings stood. The space was shared with kitchens which the captors insisted had to also be moved into the area. Conditions were appalling and access to water was restricted and rations cut (some accounts had it that no food at all was provided), and were certainly less than sanitary. With water cut-off to the few toilets in the barrack buildings rendering them unusable, trenches going as far down as 16 feet had to be dug into the hard tarmac of the parade square to provide much needed latrines.

The ‘Selarang Square Squueze’ as sketched by a POW, John Mennie, as seen on an online Daily Mail news article.

To put further pressure on the POWs to sign the statement, the Japanese had the four recaptured men executed by an Indian National Army firing squad. This was carried out in the presence of the POWs’ formation commanders on the afternoon of 2 September at the Beting Kusah (also spelt Betin Kusa) area of Changi Beach (now under an area of reclaimed land in the vicinity of the Changi Airport Cargo Complex). The execution and the escape attempt by the two Australians is described in detail in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 1 – Army, Volume IV – The Japanese Thrust (1st edition, 1957), Chapter 23 (see link):

The four men executed included two Australians—Corporal Breavington and Private Gale—who had escaped from a camp at Bukit Timah on 12th May, obtained a small boat and rowed it about 200 miles to the island of Colomba. There in a semi-starved condition they had been rearrested, and at length returned to Singapore where Breavington was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria. At the execution ground Breavington, the older man, made an appeal to the Japanese to spare Gale. He said that he had ordered Gale to escape and that Gale had merely obeyed orders ; this appeal was refused. As the Sikh firing party knelt before the doomed men, the British officers present saluted and the men returned the salute. Breavington walked to the others and shook hands with them. A Japanese lieutenant then came forward with a handkerchief and offered it to Breavington who waved it aside with a smile, and the offer was refused by all men. Breavington then called to one of the padres present and asked for a New Testament, whence he read a short passage . Thereupon the order was given by the Japanese to fire.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Map of the Changi area in 1942.

Another account of the execution which also highlighted the bravery of Cpl Breavington was given during the trial of General Fukuei Shimpei in February 1946 at the Singapore War Crimes Court:

All four prisoners refused to be blindfolded, and 16 shots were fired before it was decided that the men were dead. One of the prisoners, Cpl Breavington, a big Australian, made a vain, last-minute plea to be allowed to bear alone the full responsibility and punishment for the attempt to escape. He dies reading the New Testament. The first two shots passed through his arm, and as he lay on the ground, he shouted: “You have shot me through the arm. For God’s sake, finish me this time.”

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip.

An aerial view of the Changi Airfield, the construction of which was initiated by the Japanese in 1943. The coastal end of the east-west intersecting strip was where the Beting Kusah area and Kampong Beting Kusah was located. The kampong was cleared in 1948 to allow an RAF expansion of the airstrip (photograph taken off a display at the Changi Air Base Heritage Centre).

After holding out for a few days, the fast worsening conditions became a huge cause for concern due to the threat of the disease and the potential it had for the unnecessary loss of lives. It was with this in mind that the Allied commander, Colonel Holmes, decided to issue an order for the POWs to sign that the non-escape document under duress. With the POWs signing the statement on 5 September 1942 – many were said to have signed using false names, they were allowed to return to the areas in which they had been held previously.

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

POWs signing the non-escape statement (Selarang Camp Repository).

The incident was one which was certainly not forgotten. It was on two charges related to the incident that General Fukuei Shimbei was tried in the Singapore War Crimes Court after the Japanese surrender. The first charge related to the attempt to coerce the POWs in his custody to sign the documents of non-escape, and the ill-treatment of the POWs in doing so. The second was related to the killing of the four escapees. General Fukuei was sentenced to death by firing at the end of February 1946 and was executed on 27 April 1946, reportedly at a spot along Changi Beach close to where the four POWs had been executed.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

A photograph of the executed General Fukuei Shimbei from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Walking around the camp today, it is an air of calm and serenity that one is greeted by. It was perhaps in that same air that greeted my first visits to the camp back in early 1987. Those early encounters came in the form of day visits I made during my National Service days when I had been seconded to the 9th Division to serve in an admin party to prepare and ship equipment and stores for what was then a reserve division exercise in Taiwan. Then, the distinctive old barrack buildings around the square laid out on the rolling hills which had once been a feature of much of the terrain around Changi were what provided the camp with its character along with the old Officers’ Mess which was the Division HQ building.

The former Officers' Mess - one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

The former Officers’ Mess – one of two structures left from the original set of barrack buildings.

Another view of the former Officers' Mess.

Another view of the former Officers’ Mess.

It is in the a heritage room in the former Officers’ Mess, only one of two structures (the other a water tank) left from the wartime era that the incident is remembered. The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre is where several exhibits and photographs are displayed which provide information on the incident, as well as how the camp had been transformed over the years.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

The Selarang Camp Heritage Centre.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers' Mess.

Pieces of the old barrack buildings on display in the former Officers’ Mess.

Among the exhibits in the heritage room are old photographs taken by the POWs, a sand model of the barrack grounds and buildings which came up between 1936 to 1938, as it looked in September 1942. There are also exhibits relating to the camps occupants subsequent to the British withdrawal which was completed in 1971. The camp after the withdrawal was first used by the 42nd Singapore Armoured Regiment (42 SAR) before HQ 9th Division moved into it in 1984. It was during the HQ 9th Division’s occupancy that the camp underwent a redevelopment which took place from July 1986 to December 1989 which transformed the camp it into the state it is in today.

An exhibit - a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit – a card used by a POW to count the days of captivity.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

An exhibit from more recent times at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A photograph of a parade in the infamous square at the heritage centre.

A view of the parade square today.

A view of the parade square today.

One more recent relic from the camp before its redevelopment is a bell which belong to a Garrison Church built in 1961. The church was built as a replacement for what had been a makeshift wartime chapel, the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, which was, as was St. Luke’s where the Changi Murals were painted, a place which offered solace and hope to many POWs in extremely trying times.

The Garrison Church bell.

The Garrison Church bell.

The bell, now supported by a structure – said to resemble a 30 foot bell tower which originally held it up, can be found across the road from the parade square. The bell was transferred to Sungei Gedong Camp by 42 SAR before being returned to Selarang by HQ Armour in July 1999. It is close to the bell, where a mark of the new occupants of the camp, a Division Landmark which features a soldier next to a snarling panther (a now very recognisable symbol of the 9th Division) erected in 1991, is found standing at a corner of the new square. It stands watch over the square perhaps such that the dark shadows and ghosts of the old square do not come back to haunt us.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

A sketch of the makeshift St. Francis Xavier Chapel.

The division landmark.

The division landmark.

While there was a little disappointment I felt on not seeing the old square, I was certainly glad to have been able to see what’s become of it and also pay a visit to the heritage centre. This has certainly provided me with the opportunity to learn more about the camp, its history, and gain greater insights into events I might have otherwise have thought very little about for which I am very grateful to the MINDEF NS Policy Department who organised the visit.  It is in reflecting on events such as the Selarang Barracks Incident that I am reminded of why it is important for us in a world we have grown almost too comfortable in, to do all that is necessary to prevent the situations such as the one our forefathers and their defenders found ourselves in barely two generations ago.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.

Another photograph of the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier from the Selarang Camp Repository.





A light where there was only darkness: The Changi Murals

20 09 2013

It an air of quiet calm that greeted me as I stepped into a room where the ghosts of a time we may otherwise have forgotten continue to haunt us. The room, bathed in the glow of light painted gold by the ochre of the walls the light reflected off, seemed to extend a warm welcome which it would have in the cold dark days when it offered hope when there might only have been despair.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The Chapel of St. Luke on the ground floor of Block 151.

The room, converted into the makeshift Chapel of St. Luke (dedicated to St. Luke the physician) during the Japanese Occupation, was where a Prisoner-of-War (POW) by the name of Stanley Warren who held the rank of Bombardier in the Royal Artillery, weakened by a severe bout of renal disorder and dysentery, drew on whatever reserves he had left in strength, to decorate, remarkably, two of the chapel’s walls with five paintings of biblical scenes from the New Testament which along with the chapel became a light in the darkness of days uncertain.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel and murals were a light in the darkness of captivity for prisoners during the dark days of World War II.

The chapel which occupies a room in what was Barrack Block 151 in Roberts Barracks, which together with the neighbouring barracks and nearby Changi Prison became an extended gaol that the Japanese forces used to hold the large numbers of POWs they held. Block 151 was made part of the gaol’s hospital becoming part of a dysentery wing which included several other surrounding buildings.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Block 151 is one of a few structures from WWII which remain in the area.

Another view of Block 151.

Another view of Block 151.

Even if not for the weakened state of the painter, putting the paintings we now know as the ‘Changi Murals’ on the walls would have required an incredible effort. Based on information provided by the expert guide Mr. Vickna, we were told of how paints, pigments and even brushes were in extremely short supply, and they had to be procured through whatever means available – some which may have even put the men involved at risk.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

A photograph of the late Stanley Warren who passed away in 1992.

There was also a huge degree of improvisation involved – the colour blue for example, was obtained from crushing chalk used on billiard cues.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

A map of the POW camp sketched by Stanley Warren.

Too ill to be sent to work on the Death Railway in Siam, which he is said to have said probably saved his life, Warren found himself recuperating in a ward above the chapel in 1942, Warren and many around him drew on the comfort provided by what could be heard of the strains of Merbecke’s arrangement of the Litany being sung in the chapel.

Mr Vickna the guide.

Mr Vickna the guide.

It was hearing the voices in song throughout his slow recovery which was to serve as an inspiration for Warren who was approached by the chaplain who knew of his artistic background to decorate the makeshift chapel. He struggled through the first, The Nativity, for over two months, managing to complete it in time for Christmas in 1942. Warren was to complete four more works – the last, a mural of St. Luke in Prison, was completed in May 1943.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse's head.

The Nativity was the first mural painted. On a copy painted on a wallboard in 1963, Warren painted an albatross in place of the horse’s head.

A feature of the murals is how Warren also used it depict what he did see around him – many of the faces were those of his fellow POWs and in the third mural, The Crucifixion, which I thought was the most moving, we do also see slaves dressed in loincloths in the same way the men around him were dressed in their rags. The words found above the mural “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” were we were told also a reference to his captors and the slaves crucifying Christ being the “slaves” many of his captors were to authority.

The Ascension - the second mural.

The Ascension – the second mural.

The murals were initially thought to have been destroyed – the Japanese later converted the room into a storeroom and were thought to have broken down walls as well as painting over the remaining murals. They were thought to have been discovered by Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel in 1958 and a search was made through the press in the UK for the painter – the name Stanley Warren cropping up only when a short description of the chapel and a reference to the murals was found in a book “The Churches of Captivity in Malaya”, which was discovered in the Far East Air Force Educational Library in Changi.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall - the evidence of which can still be seen.

The Crucifixion, the third mural which was partly damaged by a doorway made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

Then an art teacher in London, Warren was invited to restore the murals, first refusing to do so on the fear of having to confront the demons of the dark days in which he executed the work. He did eventually return after much soul searching – first just before Christmas in 1963, and then again in 1982 and 1988. One of the murals does remain unrestored – the last, the lower part of which was destroyed when the wall was knocked down by the Japanese.

The Last Supper - the fourth mural.

The Last Supper – the fourth mural.

It was one for which Warren did not have a copy of his original sketch of (which was found in the possession of a fellow prisoner later in 1985), and decided to leave what remains of in its original condition. Warren did paint a copy of it, a photograph of which can be seen below the mural in which he replaced one of the figures he orginally painted.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The unrestored upper portion of the fifth mural, St. Luke in Prison.

The Crucifixion is also one which was partly destroyed when a doorway was made in the wall – the evidence of which can still be seen.

A copy of the copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

A copy of the fifth mural which Warren painted.

Another interesting fact was one that we did learn about The Nativity mural – it was thought to have been destroyed and a copy was painted on a wallboard which was eventually removed by the RAF. The copy was one on which Warren replaced the head of the horse found on the original work with an albatross to as a symbol of flying men of the RAF which was using the barracks at the time. A part the original mural – that of the horse’s head, was found by one of the boys from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Boys School (which occupied the building in the 1980s) tasked with helping Warren to restore the murals in 1982.

A view of the chapel.

A view of the chapel.

The work, which is said to have offered solace and hope to the many prisoners who used the chapel, is today a reminder not just of a event we should never again want to find ourselves confronting, but also one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The building which houses the chapel, lies today in a restricted area within the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) Changi Air Base (West) and I am grateful to MINDEF’s NS Policy Department and the RSAF for the opportunity to be moved by the murals in its original setting. A copy of the murals to which members of the public have access to, can be found in the Changi Museum.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

The chapel offered hope where there seemed to have been none.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

Mr Vickna speaking about The Ascension.

The corridor outside the chapel.

The corridor outside the chapel.


Information on Stanley Warren and the Changi Murals

* with photographs of it in the condition it when it was originally uncovered





A picture from the past

6 08 2013

Looking through old photographs of what perhaps was a lost decade for me, the 1980s, I stumbled upon a rare one of Changi Beach, taken some time in 1987. The beach, one on which I have had many experiences of going back to the late 1960s, had by that time already lost its popularity as a place for a family outing – missing were the beach side cafes, the wooden sampans, deck chairs and rubber tubes from a time when you could drive right up to the edge of the beach and find a shady spot under a ketapang tree to park your car under.

JeromeChangiBeach 1987s

The coarse sand beach in the 1980s was one abandoned by many in Singapore for the man-made beach lining the reclaimed land at East Coast Park. It is perhaps beyond the foreshore that does make the photograph interesting. Along the horizon two kelongs, structures erected to harvest fish from the sea, can be seen. The structures which once dominated the seascape off much of Singapore, are now a rare sight.

Knobbly sea stars.

Knobbly sea stars seen at Pulau Semakau – once a common sight on the seabed off Changi Beach at low tide.

The kelongs remind me of happier times past, when wading out to them at low tide was possible, across knee deep water over a seabed of sea grass meadows abundant with sea life.  It was on the many walks my parents took me on in the late 1960s and 1970s that I was to catch my first glimpse of knobby sea stars, fiddler crabs, gong-gong and sea cucumber – marine creatures that are rarely seen in our waters these days (we do also have to head to our offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau to see them).

The shallow waters during low tide off Changi Beach provided hours of endless fun with the creatures that lived amongst the sea grass. A fiddler crab is seen here.

A fiddler crab seen at Chek Jawa off Pulau Ubin.

Sea cucumber.

Sea cucumber – also once a common sight off Changi Beach.

There are also several less than happy memories I can find in the photograph. Scanning the horizon, a glimpse of Pulau Tekong is seen on the right. It just west of this spot where I would board a Ramp Powered Lighter (RPL) from the beach as a National Service recruit for a dreaded 40 minute ride on an open deck to the island. The RPLs were the means by which personnel were ferried to and from the two Basic Military Training camps on Pulau Tekong in those days. Having to beach also meant the RPLs could only come in at high tide – which translated into shortened weekends for us as when we could get back and had to go back in, was very much determined by the time when the tide was high. That meant we would sometimes get out only in the afternoon, only to have to get back to the beach on the morning of the following day. It is a lot easier these days, recruits leave from and arrive at a purpose built ferry terminal, and without having to wait for the tide, all it does take to get to Pulau Tekong is a less than 15 minute ride on a fast ferry.

changi1

As with the means by which personnel are sent over to Pulau Tekong, much about Changi Beach has changed. Many of the ketapang, acacia, pong pong and casuarina trees under which we might once have found Malay ladies weaving ketupat pouches from young coconut leaves, have since been uprooted. In their place, we now see a footpath with stone benches and trees carefully arranged where cars could once drive up to. The beach, littered with the deposits of the tide: seashells, mangrove propagules and drift wood, and the trunk of a coconut palm, is otherwise empty as is the horizon. It is reflective of the world we now find ourselves in, a world in which we have discarded much of who we were and one which we fill with the emptiness we now seek for our souls.





The swastika at the tenth mile

9 07 2013

One very distinct memory from a childhood of many wonderful moments to remember is of the red swastika at Somapah Village. The village was one I had many encounters with in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, stopping by or passing through it on the many journeys we made to Mata Ikan at the other end of Somapah Road where a favourite holdiay destination for my family – the Mata Ikan Government Holiday Bungalows was located.

A photograph of the old Red Swastika School along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School's website).

The red swastika along Somapah Road (source: Red Swastika School’s website).

The swastika belonged to the Red Swastika School, just down the road from the main part of the village. It adorned the simple single storey zinc-roofed  school building, rising above it over the entrance and never failed to catch my attention from my vantage in the back seat of the car – a symbol I would always associate with the now lost village. The memories I do have of the village and the school are largely contained in a post I had put up at the end of 2010 on the village:  Memories of the lost world that was Somapah Village. What motivated me to touch on this again is a few old photographs of the school, apparently taken during a school sports day in the 1970s, sent by a reader Mr. Alvin Lee, which follows.

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The school traces its history back to the founding of the Wan Tzu School by the World Red Swastika Society at the village in 1951, built to serve residents of the rural community in the Changi 10th Mile area where Somapah Village was located and provided free education to them. Sometime in the 1950s, the name of the school was changed to the Red Swastika School – a name now well respected for its academic achievements.  Its enrollment was to grow quickly, from 300 at its starting, it had by the end of its first decade a population of some 1000 students who were accommodated in its 12 classrooms over two sessions. With the days of the village coming to an end in the 1980s the school moved to new premises in Bedok North Avenue 3 in 1981 where it still operates today.

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